Lorna, the main character in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's penetrating drama Lorna's Silence, is in a pickle right from the beginning of the film. As an Albanian immigrant with a job in a dry-cleaning plant somewhere in a drab corner of Belgium, she's dedicated to working hard and walking the line until she's racked up enough time to earn her Belgian citizenship. But we wonder what such a focused young woman (played by Kosovo native Arta Dobroshi) is doing with a druggy, disheveled roommate like Claudy (Jérémie Renier), a junkie whose unreliability oozes out of every pore in his body.
Then it clicks — Lorna and Claudy are part of an arranged immigration-marriage scheme. Lorna is staying married to Belgian citizen Claudy just long enough to get her European passport, whereupon she can pay off the junkie and get a divorce. Then, after waiting a while, she's supposed to marry a cold-faced Russian hood named Andrei (Anton Yakovlev) who's anxious for his own European ID in order to go into "business" in the West. Once Andrei gets the passport, Lorna can divorce Andrei — after collecting her payoff — and finally be free to marry her own true love, a fellow Albanian named Sokol (Alban Ukaj). Lorna and Sokol have their eye on a little mom 'n' pop snack shop they'll finance with the money they'll get from the Russian and from the unspecified "jobs" Sokol is always doing in Germany. What could go wrong?
Welcome to early-21st-century Europe, and in particular to downtown Dardenneville. You always know what to expect in a Dardenne Bros. film. It's essentially going to be a story of desperate young people trying to eke out a living in the Belgian underclass, with generally disastrous results that nevertheless add a luster of rough nobility to the characters.
It's possible to look at the best of the Belgian brothers' remarkable works — La promesse, Rosetta, Le fils, L'enfant — as film noirs, but somehow that genre seems a little too narrow for the weight the Dardennes place on their characters. All the familiar noir hallmarks are there, but they exist alongside deeper, still darker, meditations on family, the nature of work, and the cruelty of capitalism, particularly the free-market variety. Hundred-Euro bills change hands at several points in the film, but not much of it trickles down to Lorna in the midst of her troubles — junkie trouble, gangster trouble, immigrant trouble, money trouble. Neither a diligent immigrant laborer like her nor a weak-willed addict like Claudy stands much of a chance. They're both screwed from the outset, but even hopeless losers can display a sense of honor and loyalty.
Andrei the gangster is in a hurry. His local fixer, a thuggish Belgian taxi driver named Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione), applies pressure to Lorna and Claudy to speed up the process and get it over with, but it becomes apparent that Lorna, against her better judgment, has formed an attachment to Claudy, who wants to clean himself up but can't quite find the handle. Lorna is a caregiver — we can see that from the worried, thoughtful look on her face as she watches over Claudy in the hospital. Nevertheless, she's obliged to trump up a battered-wife scenario, complete with self-manufactured injuries, in order to get a quick divorce from Claudy — she does it to save Claudy's life. It's a short step off a steep cliff from there.
Lorna's Silence shares a dry, matter-of-fact tone of despair with the recent spate of Romanian dramas like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, but things happen faster in Dardenneville. In the third film of her career (her first in Western Europe), thirty-year-old actor Dobroshi achieves Bressonian levels of compressed introspection as the lonely, intrepid Lorna, while Dardenne regular Renier (he also starred in Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours earlier this year) grovels his way under the skin of the exasperating addict. Lorna's problem is that she needs to be needed. Every other character in the film only needs money. A hell of a predicament, but it's heaven on earth for the Dardenne Bros., the poets of European mercantile desolation.
Compared to the scuffling lowlifes of Lorna's Silence, filmmaker Max Mayer's protagonists in Adam — a pair of romantic young Manhattanites trying to overcome the symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome in the title character — would seem to have it pretty cushy, but even privileged upper-middle-class New Yorkers can get the blues. Just ask Whit Stillman.
Actors Hugh Dancy (English star of The Jane Austen Book Club) and soulful-eyed Australian Rose Byrne (moving up the ladder from the likes of 28 Weeks Later) have their work cut out for them in writer-director Mayer's story. The literally sheltered Adam — who because of his "mind blindness" (Asperger's is described as "a kind of high-function autism") is afraid to venture out of the oversize pre-war flat he inherited from his father — tries his best to connect with Beth, a new and very sympathetic tenant in the building.
We end up worrying for him and for her. It's a tribute to Mayer's dramatic skills that we begin to care for Adam at about the same time, and at approximately the same rate, that Beth does. She's recovering from a broken heart, and Adam seems a likely project with little apparent emotional risk, at least until she finds herself touched by his innocence and sensitivity. Beth helps him develop social skills and negotiate a job search in his chosen field, astrophysics. Adam helps her rediscover her faith in people. Major kudos to Dancy and especially Byrne — with any other actors this fragile fantasy would probably melt.
Portraying two guileless people in love is always a risky proposition. Mayer's solution to the omnipresent threat of excessive pathos is to wrap Adam and Beth's little world in the trappings of a children's story, in this case hopeful writer Beth's tale of a family of raccoons living in Central Park. The beautifully photographed park; the Simon-and-Garfunkel-style emo songs; the advice from Adam's kindly family retainer (ahem), Harlan (Frankie Faison); the lovingly rendered cosmopolitan cocktail parties with Beth's crowd; even the complicated subplot with Beth's lawyer father (Peter Gallagher), his legal troubles, and his disintegrating marriage to Beth's mother (Amy Irving) — all reassuringly familiar and ultimately as cozy as a reindeer sweater.
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